Shane (1953)

Synopsis:

In the 19th century, lonesome cowboy Shane (Alan Ladd, This Gun for Hire) befriends rancher Joe Starrett (Van Heflin, Airport) and his family. Joe offers Shane a job at the ranch, which the wanderer accepts. In the meantime, The Starretts and their neighbors are being harassed by a powerful cattleman who wants to force the settlers out of their lands. Tensions build up to an inevitable showdown.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold.”

George Stevens’s Shane is one of the sacred cows of American cinema. Much has been said about the film’s contributions to American cultural iconography. I feel, however, the movie’s most enduring bequest, which tends to go unnoticed, is its primarily visual language based on a binary system. The result shows that it is possible to create a harmonious marriage between homage and revisionism.

With almost clinical precision, director Stevens (A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Anne Frank) builds an imaginary bridge that connects the pre-1950s idealized view of the wild frontier with the revisionist attitude that emerged in the post-WWII era, and continues to strive in recent years — Shane remains a fascinating production because it manages somewhat to put two styles that normally don’t go together.

For viewers who enjoy the canonization of the western hero, Shane is full of striking images that enter the realm of self-conscious artificiality (courtesy of Loyal Griggs’s extraordinary color cinematography). But if you do not buy into the myths of the wild west, Stevens allows the ugliness of the frontier life to come to the surface. The interaction between the unattractive and the fine-looking, between the real and unreal, creates contrasts that are both stimulating and illuminating.

Director Stevens also pushes the idea that the Old West was a time riddled with paradoxical dilemmas. As far as I know, this is one of the first Hollywood westerns to explicitly examine the relationship between violence and justice: The good guy resorts to violence in order to bring order and peace to the civilized world, an irony that the film explores in great depth. The movie also goes against the long-held practice of romanticizing the western hero. Shane’s life is not a bed of roses — he is a violent man condemned to live the rest of his days alone.

The script by novelist and historian A.B. Guthrie Jr. (These Thousand Hills), adapted from Jack Schaefer’s novel, makes a conscious decision to stay away from resolving issues; the opportunity is used to raise questions, not to provide solutions. There is also the relationship between Shane and the little boy, brilliantly played by 10-years-old Brandon De Wilde (Martin Ritt’s Hud) — this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie because one represents the past, the other symbolizes the future.

The cast is nearly perfect. Alan Ladd is excellent in the title role — it’s probably his best performance. Despite being notoriously short, Ladd comes across as an imposing gunslinger. Van Heflin is great too as the hardworking farmer and family man. And who doesn’t love heavy Jack Palance? (billed as Walter Jack Palance). I love how the dog walks away every time Palance (City Slickers) enters the barroom — I don’t know who came up with the idea, but it’s a small but great touch!

In her final movie role, Jean Arthur (The More the Merrier), who plays Heflin’s wife, is the weakest link here. Arthur sticks out like a sore thumb. Everything about her — make-up, hairstyle, age, etc. — seems wrong for the role of the pioneer wife and mother. The cast also includes Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show), Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon) and Ellen Corby (I Remember Mama). The leafy music score is by Victor Young (For Whom the Bell Tolls and Around the World in 80 Days).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Shane ranks high in the western canon. But it isn’t just a great western, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Exceptional performances by Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Van Heflin and little Brandon De Wilde, meticulous direction by the great George Stevens, extraordinary cinematography and an incisive script help make Shane a classic! Later, the movie was adapted into a TV series, with actor David Carradine (Lone Wolf McQuade and Kill Bill) as Shane. Color, 118 minutes, Not Rated.

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